Being the country’s first black president, and speaking on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s iconic “I Have a Dream Speech”, is a task of almost unimaginable difficulty.
Dr. King is now a legend more than a man. He is American royalty and a myth. As such, the complexities and radicalism of Dr. King’s vision have been washed away in order to fit him into America’s panoply of heroes.
For a variety of reasons--ranging from practical politics, personality, history, to temperament--Barack Obama cannot compete with Dr. King.
There are glaring contradictions and complexities that come with comparing Dr. King and Barack Obama.
Dr. King was a pacifist and anti-militarist who believed that America was the greatest single cause of violence in the world. Barack Obama, while giving his own March on Washington speech, has already, or soon will, order the United States military to attack Syria.
Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement were subjected to harassment and spying by the United States government under COINTELPRO. Barack Obama presides over a surveillance apparatus that routinely violates the American peoples’ constitutionally guaranteed rights.
Dr. King was a staunch critic of American imperialism. Barack Obama is the “black face of American Empire”.
Barack Obama is an amazingly gifted public speaker and was largely able to sidestep these problems and contradictions in his March on Washington anniversary speech.
To that end, Barack Obama made a series of choices about what type of speech to give, and what topics to discuss therein.
In his soaring rhetoric, Barack Obama chose to return to an old trope, and what is for him, a comfortable narrative. He would speak about his dream of a post-racial America, one that is still a work in progress. And as Obama has done in previous speeches, he would choose to play the public scold of Black America, a rhetorical choice that serves to free white folks from any personal responsibility for centuries of American racism.
That Barack Obama would decide to lecture and scold Black America on the 50th Anniversary of Dr. King’s speech and the March on Washington is disturbing. There, Obama references the many thousands of black folks across the generations from slavery to freedom, people who are quintessential examples of black respectability, personal responsibility, and yearning for excellence and success in a society where the color line deemed them less than equal and fully human.
Rather than draw connections from that legacy to our current moment—and to celebrate such ties—Obama instead chose to talk about black folks as racial grievance mongers, possessed of bad culture, criminality, and who are a people that somehow lost their way, and that need to work harder at holding up their end of the civic and cultural bargain in America.
If Dr. King is really American royalty, and the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington is a celebration of how the Black Freedom Struggle helped to transform a nation (and the world) for the better, then Obama sullied that moment--just as he did during an earlier speech to the graduates of Morehouse College—by summoning the tired bogeyman of black pathology instead of singing the many successes of Black America high to the mountaintops.
In following a “colorblind” post-racial script where African-Americans are hurt more by their “bad culture” than by structural and systemic white racism, Barack Obama dredged up caricatures and cartoon images of African-American history.
To point. President Obama suggested that black folks have strayed away from Dr. King’s vision by rioting.
Despite being a talking-point better suited for Fox News and its obsession with “black criminality” and “racist” assaults on innocent white people, Obama’s playing with symbolic racism (and the coded racial appeals of Republicans and “centrist” Democrats from Nixon onward) is a dishonest use of history.
Black folks are not hyper-emotional civic children and brigands who sit around waiting to spontaneously riot and engage in wanton destruction...despite what the Tea Party GOP and the Right-wing media would suggest.
As Obama most certainly knows, race riots in the United States have overwhelmingly been committed by whites against black and brown folks.
Obama is a smart student of American history. He would most certainly know that the Kerner Commission report written in the aftermath of the urban rebellions of the 1960s detailed how those “riots” were caused by predictable variables such as police brutality, economic desperation, racism, geographic isolation, a sense of gross racial and class injustice, and other factors that speak to the power of institutional inequality along the color line.
The Los Angeles Rebellion in 1992 was driven by a similar sense of alienation and justified rage at how police brutality and extra-legal violence against people of color is a recurring fixture in American life. George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin is a recent example of the semi-permanence of that fact.
In those rare moments when black folks have rioted, they were for wholly understandable, and in many ways, quite rational reasons: African-Americans are no more violence prone by virtue of skin color than any other group.
In his March on Washington anniversary speech Barack Obama also talked about how “...racial politics could cut both ways as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination.”
Who is Obama speaking of? What agents are engaging in such theatrics and politics? Is Obama alluding to kente cloth and kufi wearing black radicals who haunt the dreams of "respectable" Middle America? Is Obama talking about “angry” black people who scare white folks by talking about racism and white supremacy? Does this group include the great legal scholar Derrick Bell, one of Obama’s mentors, who brilliantly and incisively wrote about the relationship between the American legal system and white supremacy?
Here, Obama’s allusion to “recrimination” is so broad that it becomes an empty vessel that can only be filled in with a two-dimensional parody of those black and brown critics who challenge white racism and white supremacy.
This is the “angry black person” who hurts white folks’ feelings, is “too emotional”, “sees racism everywhere”, irrational, and unwilling to accept that Whiteness is really and truly benign. The "angry black person" will also not give white people the benefit of the doubt by accepting that racism is really about intent, as opposed to outcomes and/or social structures.
Consequently, the "angry black" is a stock character in post civil rights era America because he or she is a convenient way of silencing, marginalizing, and ignoring the justice claims made by African-Americans.
In total, the trope of "the angry black person" is also a way to create a false equivalence between the anger of black Americans at white racism, and white folks’ resentment at having to be held accountable for white racism, and to being forced to consider, just for a moment, that they may have to surrender just a little bit of their unearned power and privilege for the Common Good and social progress.
In his much praised “Speech on Race” in 2008, Barack Obama made a similar move:
That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician's own failings…That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change.
But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.
In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience - as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor.
They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.
In his March on Washington anniversary speech, Obama legitimated white racial resentment when he suggested the following:
And then, if we're honest with ourselves, we'll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us, claiming to push for change, lost our way. The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots.
Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination. And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire for government support, as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself.
All of that history is how progress stalled. That's how hope was diverted. It's how our country remained divided.
Moreover, while Obama wants action on the part of black folks to improve themselves, there is no equivalent demand that white people take responsibility for white racism.
The President’s March on Washington anniversary speech is a crystallization of the price of admission Barack Obama paid in order to become the country’s first black Chief Executive.
For example, Obama talks in broad and inclusive ways about the racial progress made in America, while continuing to remind the public of the work that remains—all the while not proposing any race specific solutions to these problems.
Obama avoids talking about the particular struggles and concerns of the African-American community because in his own words, he is “the president of all Americans.”
And the country’s first black president publicly scolds African-Americans, with the sum effect being to legitimate a narrative and logic that black and brown folks somehow share in the responsibility for how white racism, both structural and inter-personal, has negatively impacted the life chances of people of color.
Barack Obama is in his second and final term. He does not need to worry about being reelected.
History is his most important audience now.
Will President Obama be remembered as the country’s first Black President? Or alternatively, will Obama be remembered as a President who happened to be black? This is a subtle distinction; it is also very important as we attempt to locate Barack Obama relative to the long Black Freedom Struggle and the Civil Rights Movement.
Barack Obama’s speech on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. King’s “I have a Dream Speech” would seem to suggest that he is more comfortable with the second title. Ultimately, Barack Obama’s public scolding of Black Americans is not being done for some short-term political goal, i.e. to win a presidential election by having an obligatory for Democratic candidates “Sister Souljah” moment. Given his habit of publicly calling out black folks’ perceived and imagined cultural and moral failings, on some level, Obama must believe such things to be true.
Brother Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a deep and abiding love for black people. He died for our freedom. I believe that Barack Obama also loves black folks too. But, his love is of a different nature and type than that of Dr. King’s. Such a difference helps to explain why Barack Obama is the country’s “first president who happens to be black” as opposed to being “the United States’ first black president”.